Artillery of the American War of Independence



A well-trained crew could swiftly load, aim, and fire; these artillerymen swab their gun’s hot muzzle with a damp sponge to eliminate sparks before reloading

Gunpowder was invented in China and in widespread use in Europe by the end of the fourteenth century. It was used almost exclusively to provide the explosive force that enabled large, heavy, and cumbersome artillery pieces to propel large projectiles—initially stone, later cast iron—over relatively short distances. It took many improvements in the strength of metals and the explosive force of gunpowder to make it practical to field smaller and more mobile projectile weapons, the most important of which were crew-served small artillery pieces and the personal firearms of the foot and horse soldiers. A notable advance in artillery occurred in the first decade of the seventeenth century, when gun founders working for the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632), cast artillery tubes that were both sufficiently strong and lightweight to be effective and mobile. Where artillery had once been limited to the slow rhythms of the attack and defense of fortifications, now it could be brought to the battlefield with often devastating effect. At Breitenfeld, in 1631, Gustavus proved the soundness of his ideas and marked the birth of true field artillery by using light guns to smash the Spanish infantry squares. Gunners remained civilian technicians until 1671, when Louis XIV of France raised the first artillery unit and established schools to teach his troops how best to use the weapons in the field. But French artillery officers did not receive military rank until 1732, and in some countries drivers were ‘‘contract civilians’’ as late as the 1790s.

In North America, where distances were enormous by European standards, there was no road network over which artillery pieces could be transported. Consequently, most artillery used during the Colonial Wars was waterborne, with its use concentrated in defensive fortifications and on warships at sea. Americans, for whom using artillery was a technical challenge and an almost unsupportable expense, displayed initiative and ingenuity when they turned French cannon captured in an outlying fortification against Louisburg in the siege of May–June 1745. True field artillery was used on only a handful of American battlefields down to 1775, and even then it amounted only to small artillery pieces being used mainly as antipersonnel weapons.

Americans began their war for independence with only the motley assortment of cannon (some thirteen different calibers), projectiles, and gunpowder that was in the hands of the colonial militia, plus the prospect of what they could capture from British forts and ships. The British sought to confiscate what little artillery the Americans had, because even the smallest artillery pieces could wreak havoc on soldiers standing shoulder-toshoulder several ranks deep in the formations required by the linear tactics of the period. General Thomas Gage, for instance, ordered raids to Salem, Massachusetts, on 26 February 1775, and to Lexington and Concord on 19 April, to capture ordnance reported to be in the possession of the rebels. At the start of the war, Americans had no tubes of a sufficiently large size to be useful as siege guns, a significant handicap for the New England army facing off against the British in Boston. The ordnance stored at Fort Ticonderoga was thus of vital importance. In an isolated interior location and guarded by only a few British soldiers, it was relatively easy to take possession of. Once Henry Knox solved the problem of how to transport those heavy guns overland from Ticonderoga to the coast, Washington could begin to formulate the plan that drove the British from Boston. At Philadelphia as early as 1775 Americans tried to remedy their lack of artillery by casting cannon and making gun carriages, but their industrial infrastructure was insufficiently developed to make possible the rapid production of large numbers of tubes. Some French field pieces—made surplus to French requirements by the development of the Gribeauval system—were brought to America during the war.

Britain’s ability to supply its armies with artillery far outstripped the poor American efforts, and, moreover, the guns were delivered into the hands of officers and men who drew on a wellspring of experience and tradition in using these weapons. The Royal Regiment of Artillery provided trained gunners, whose officers were schooled in the science of their profession at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Sir William Howe, for example, entered the battle of Long Island in August 1776 with three battalions of gunners and seventy-two guns, completely overmatching the inexperienced American artillerists. The British artillery hero of Minden, William Phillips, made effective use of his guns during Burgoyne’s Offensive, particularly at Ticonderoga in July 1777, and at the first battle of Saratoga on 19 September 1777, proving that artillery could be moved by inland waterways well into the interior. The motto of British artillery was ‘‘Ubique’’ (Ubiquitous); British gunners lived up to it by bringing their guns into action at nearly every important battle of the war.



Before the Revolution, Boston’s Henry Knox served in a militia artillery unit, learning from European books on gunnery. Knox trained other officers, and they in turn created artillerymen who were a match for the best British cannoneers.

American gunners had to develop their own traditions from scratch. Richard Gridley, an American veteran of the last colonial wars who had made his reputation by laying the guns at the siege of Louisburg in 1745, was the first commander of American artillery, at the siege of Boston (19 May 1775). He was replaced on 17 November by portly, twenty-five-year-old Henry Knox, who had acquired his basic knowledge of artillery from the books he sold at his Boston bookstore and who gained practical experience by watching Gridley for six months. Knox made his reputation bringing the cannon from Ticonderoga to Boston and, during the next eight years, eventually as chief of artillery, did a remarkable job of turning the artillery from the slenderest beginnings into the most proficient American combat arm. American gunners generally well-served their pieces up to the limits of their sometimes shoddy equipment. Their success in keeping their powder dry and bringing their guns into action made a notable contribution to the crucial American victory at Trenton (26 December 1776). There was only one regiment of Continental artillery during 1775 and 1776, although several states raised artillery companies for local service. John Lamb and Alexander Hamilton, for example, began their military service in companies of artillery raised by New York State. The four numbered regiments of Continental artillery raised in the three-year army of 1777 folded together gunners from both of these sources. Colonel Charles Harrison (1st Regiment) had commanded the Virginia state artillery regiment. Colonel John Lamb (Second Regiment) had led a New York artillery company on the Canada invasion. Colonel John Crane (Third Regiment) had served under Gridley and Knox at the siege of Boston. Colonel Thomas Proctor (4th Regiment) had been a major of the Pennsylvania Artillery Battalion during 1776. Colonel Benjamin Flower supervised a regiment of artillery artificers, operating as companies and smaller detachments, that provided vital technical support for the field artillery. As hostilities wound down, the four field regiments were consolidated into a ‘‘Corps of Artillery’’ under Colonel John Crane (17 June 1783 to 3 November 1783), and with Major Sebastian Bauman, the second in command, in charge until 20 June 1784. By its resolution of 4 June 1784 Congress reduced the army to eight privates guarding military stores, including the surviving artillery pieces, twenty-five at Fort Pitt, and fifty-five at West Point under a captain.

The guns themselves varied widely in size, weight of tube, weight of projectile, and purpose. There were three broad categories: guns, howitzers, and mortars. Guns were usually designated by weight of projectile, howitzers and mortars by width of bore. Almost all cannon used on the battlefield were made of brass, an expensive alloy but one that could be cast with greater reliability than iron. Guns threw solid, round shot (a kinetic energy projectile) over a relatively flat trajectory, with weight of projectiles ranging from three pounds to twenty-four pounds, although twelve-pounders were normally the heaviest in field service. Solid shot could knock down masonry walls, penetrate the sides of wooden ships, and mow down men standing in rank and file. In the early 1770s the British had developed sturdy, lightweight, three-pounder gun tubes, called grasshoppers, that could be broken down and transported on packhorses to increase their already extreme mobility. Howitzers and mortars generally threw hollow, explosive (chemical energy) projectiles at a higher arc and thus shorter range; they were developed for use in siege warfare, where the projectiles—‘‘bombs’’ and ‘‘carcasses’’— would go over the fortification wall and explode among the gunners sheltering behind the parapet. Howitzers, too, were field artillery, up to a bore diameter of about five and one-half inches. Both guns and howitzers could fire antipersonnel ammunition at close range, typically grape shot (a set of subcaliber solid shot stacked around a center pintle and held together with a rope net) and case shot (subcaliber scrap, musket balls, or slugs stacked in a tin cylinder). On the axle of the two-wheel gun carriage flanking the gun tube were ‘‘side boxes’’ holding several rounds of ready ammunition. Each tube was attached by the trail of its carriage to a limber, drawn by a team of horses, six or eight if available. (Oxen could haul heavier loads—Knox used oxen to bring the cannon from Ticonderoga to Boston—but they were too slow and vulnerable for battlefield service.)

On the battlefield itself, a crew of eight to ten cannoneers manned drag ropes and trail spikes to maneuver the guns into position, accomplished the intricate dance of loading gunpowder (mostly in bags of cloth or paper, but sometimes ladled loose down the barrel) and projectile down the muzzle of the piece, and set it in position to fire at the target. All artillery was muzzleloading and smooth-bore. Aiming was an art, accomplished by peering down the length of the tube and quickly making a rough calculation that combined distance to the target, weather conditions, quality of powder, and weight of projectile. Traverse was accomplished by manually shifting the entire carriage; changes in elevation were done by inserting a triangular wooden block, called a quoin, under the rear of the barrel. The piece had to be re-aimed after each shot, since there were no recoil mechanisms to return it to its original position after firing. The maximum effective range of artillery— even large-caliber guns firing solid shot—was about 1,200 yards (a mile and a half), and with untrained gunners using imperfect weapons and ammunition the range was about 400 yards. Because aiming was so imprecise, gunners invariably tried to minimize range before opening fire. Rates of fire varied with the pace of operations and, of course, the skill of the gun crew. The maximum rate of about eight rounds an hour could not be long sustained, both because of crew fatigue and overheating of the barrel.



The American army never had enough artillery, so British guns such as this howitzer captured at Saratoga were often sent to other troops who needed them; this cannon was inscribed by its captors with the proud words: “Surrendered by the Convention of Saratoga, October 17, 1777.”

The impact of artillery on the outcome of the war is sometimes difficult to assess. Probably the greatest service was rendered by heavy guns during siege operations. British gunners scored a notable success in destroying the American defensive lines at Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780, and American gunners demonstrated a high level of skill in siege operations at Yorktown in October 1781. The mere presence of heavy artillery could be as important as the actual operation of the guns: Washington forced the British to evacuate Boston in March 1776 without firing a shot from Dorchester Heights. Artillery could keep an enemy at bay, but inaccuracy at long range limited its impact. During the siege of Boston, the British delivered one cannonade at short range that inflicted only one slight casualty in the American lines. British gunners did succeed in damaging Roxbury, at a range of about a mile from their positions at Boston Neck. When they lobbed mortar shells into Cambridge, more than two miles away they did little damage owing to faulty ammunition and extreme range. Field artillery was almost always used for infantry support, and again its effectiveness depended on the skill and audacity of the gunners, the suitability of their pieces, and the quality of their supplies. Sometimes artillery pieces played an important direct role (as at Trenton); as often, the sound of one’s own artillery must have been an enormous fillip for the infantrymen, regardless of the actual damage the guns inflicted on the enemy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Duncan, Francis. History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, 1716– 1815. 2 vols. 3rd ed. London, 1879. Gooding, S. James. An Introduction to British Artillery in North America. Historical Arms Series No. 4. Bloomfield, Ont.: Museum Restoration Service, 1965. Graham, C. A. L. The Story of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Woolwich: Royal Artillery Institution, 1962. Manucy, Albert. Artillery Through the Ages: A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America. National Park Service Interpretative Series, History No. 3. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office for the National Park Service, 1949. Muller, John. A Treatise of Artillery. 1780. Reprint: Bloomfield, Ont.: Museum Restoration Service, 1977. Wright, Robert K., Jr. The Continental Army. Army Lineage Series. Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1983.


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